Quantified Morality – Seeking Well-Being for All

Posted by on January 25, 2014 in Featured, Thoughts | 6 comments

QuantifiedMorality2Image via Wikipedia.


On December 10 1948, after the devastating effects of the Second World War, the United Nations drafted the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (hereafter UDHR) charter. The purpose of the document was to identify and declare the universal rights that ever human being on the planet shares, and to promote these as unalienable rights for all of humanity, and to ensure that something like WWII never happened again. Much like the United States Declaration of Independence, the document creates a road-map for the rights and dignities that should be extended to all people regardless of “race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” This is a good beginning from which we can begin to work towards a quantified morality.

What the UDHR shows, in its 30 (short) articles, is that, while we are incredibly varied as cultures and societies, at the root we all hold the same innate needs. Article 1 of the charter states:

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

While all the points of the charter are reasonable and well thought out, already we see that, this document is not really a set of rules, but rather an attempt to say how we “should” act toward one another. Given that it’s a situation of choice, it’s not as powerful as it could be. And this identifies a simple but universal problem; While we can tell people what the ultimate world should look like, we are at a loss to enforce this, because the very act of enforcement of these rules infringes directly upon them.

Of particular interest is Article 25(1) which reads:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

This is certainly a standard that we should all hope to attain, and one worth pursuing.

When reading the UDHR, many of the points that are seen as universal are infringed upon routinely by governments and societies worldwide. The second part of Article 25 is of interest, particularly with relation to theocratic dogma served up in the USA and increasingly in Australia:

Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

This is just one example of how the UDHR is ineffective against tyranny, especially tyranny from inside sources. These societies are among some of the most progressive in the world, yet are under attack from conservatives who stand to gain the abolition of these rights. What it shows is that people are willing to forgo rights of others if for some reason the rights infringe upon what they see as their own rights, and this is where things get tricky. As with freedom of speech, which is not specifically stated in the UDHR articles, but mentioned in passing in the preamble (“… a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people“), these freedoms and rights are only as good as a society will allow them to be. For example, freedom of speech means you can say and express any idea or opinion, but that you shouldn’t expect to be given a “free pass” if your views or opinions infringe upon the rights and freedoms of others. By the same token, if the right to freedom of speech is extended to all people, your speech is allowed and even expected to be taken to task by others exercising this same right. With rights come responsibility, and I fear that too many in the world are more than willing to ignore this fact.

I view the UDHR as a good starting point for mapping of a morality for humanity. It promotes equality and well-being, rights and freedoms, above individual greed and selfishness, and is an application of a “larger group” inclusive mentality. But given the nature of the document, a buy-in situation, there are no guarantees that anyone needs to or will adhere to the points in the articles. Even with Article 30, which reads:

Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.

there is no guarantee that any state, power or group will actually give this document any credence. Still, I feel this is the best we have come up with so far, and it should be read by all citizens of earth, both to see how we “should” treat each other, and how we “should” be treated.

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  1. Morals are not universal and never will be universal, you cannot force any particular view of morality on any individual culture or society.  Morals do not just float around somewhere, applicable to everyone, no matter how much people might want them to be.  That’s not how morals work, that’s why they fail in the religious context and why they fail here.  Morality cannot be pushed on anyone via force, influence or intimidation, especially by a group as ineffectual as the UN.

    It’s a point I’ve made for years, yet lots of people just don’t want to believe it.

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  2. Good article Martin. The ICCPR contains similar provisions in many respects and I don’t understand why the same provisions are in both instruments, but I suppose it helps to have them reiterated!

    As my father used to say, “Do unto others as you would they should do unto you”

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  3. Bitchspot1 Morality, maybe not. I don’t like the word at the best of times. Humanism, however, should be global. Sadly, it isn’t.

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  4. robyn_oyeniyi Bitchspot1  Why?  People can no more agree on what constitutes humanism than they can on morality.  It’s all determined  by local conditions and beliefs, there is no universally accepted right way or wrong way to do just about anything.

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  5. Do you understand what a right or what quantification even consists of? If what you claim to be a right, requires the infringement, by coercion or by force, on another to accomplish, then it cannot by definition be a right, as it requires the participation, willingly or forcibly, of another person, and cannot exist if that other person ceases to exist. Freedom of speech is a right, as it requires not the participation of another to enact. Conversely, housing is not a right, food is not a right, healthcare is not a right, because if one is unwilling or unable to work for them, that then requires the forceful imposition on another to provide, although the pursuit of those things is a right.
    If you believe that government (or some other entity) should provide those services universally, and that we have progressed as a society to the point where that can and should be our goal, then that is the argument that you should make. But arguing that something that by definition cannot be a right, is a right, is simply fallacious logic.
    On a side note: I found this blog from the header “Quantified Morality.” What you offer in your commentary is nothing of the sort, it is the very same subjective morality that has been the standard of religions and secularists from the beginning of recorded history, ad infinitum. There is only one moral standard that I am aware of that offers actual quantification, and not the qualification that you have presented herein as such. I think it will do your critical thought skills some good to search it out on your own, although given the content of this blog, I am certain that you will not find it to your liking.
    Objective, quantifiable morality exists, but it has nothing to do with the arguments you have presented here.
    A little video on the objective difference between a ‘right’ and a ‘commodity.’

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  6. Somniphile Hi, thanks for stopping by. I agree with you that the title of this piece is not what you get in the article, but you have to understand that this piece is part of a series of pieces I have written working toward the topic of the quantification of morality, and should be read in context of those.
    Starting with this article, where I talk about Sam Harris’ ideas in The Moral Landscape:
    There are seven other articles I wrote after that one, and this is one of the later ones. If you take the time to read them, I think you’ll see where my position comes from, and where both the title and the content of this piece come from. I just assume, since I have a small but devoted readership, that most who read this article will have already read the other articles leading up to it.

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